Three easy ways to save the world

Credit: Kaboompics

Credit: Kaboompics

Just when you thought headlines couldn't get any more clickbaity. Ha.

I wanted to open with that ol' "save the cheerleader, save the world" reference, but I don't want to overplay that joke so I'll leave it to one side (even though the first 2.5 seasons of that show were freakin' amazing). Let's get to it.

I'm sure you're also one of those people that read the news, see all the crazy things going on these days, and think "this is so infuriating! If only I could do something about it beyond writing angry Facebook and Twitter updates about it!" You're obviously furious about whatever controversy is dominating the news at the time and, more importantly, wish that all the darn insanity would just stop already. "The problem is that I'm just one guy/girl, so what could I ever do to fix it?"

Plenty, actually. In fact, if you do one (or all) of the following three things then you, yes YOU, can save the world. Better yet, these are not mutually exclusive activities although I recognize that asking you to do all three of them is a bit too much.

 

All Good Things

1. Volunteer. You probably don't realize it, but volunteering has a much, much, MUCH larger (economic) impact on society than you think (article). It doesn't matter if only have three hours per week to spare; every little bit counts for volunteer-run organizations whose resources are stretched to the absolute limit. Based on some casual conversations that I've had with people that work there, they truly are extremely grateful for every second that you can spare to help them. So go ahead and run a web search for any local charity (or maybe local town hall?) that works for a cause that you care about and reach out to them. As a specific piece of advice, it would be even better if you could apply your professional expertise to your volunteer cause. For example, if you're a graphic designer, why not give the website of the local food bank a complete revamp so that it's more user-friendly and effective? You get to do what you love and the charity benefits from proven expertise. A win-win for all parties!

Frequent, formal volunteering produces about £24 billion of economic output for Britain. That’s equivalent to 1.5% of GDP ... Informal volunteering might add another £19 billion of output. Add in infrequent volunteering and you’re looking at around £50 billion, roughly the size of the British energy sector.
— The Economist; "Hiding In Plane Sight" (2014)

2. Donate money to a cause and just go about your business per usual. I personally believe that small, recurring monthly payments are more effective over time than sporadic, but large, lump-sum payments. I would say that $5-$10 (or euros) per month to one specific charity is a good way to go. "But that's nothing!" I knew you would say that. Well, first of all, feel free to give more. Secondly, it's a simple numbers game. If every person in New York City (8.5 million people), Houston (2.3 million), Berlin (3.5 million), or whichever large city in the world donated that amount every month, I'm pretty sure we would make tremendous strides in solving a particular cause*. The point is, you can donate money to a good cause and just... continue with your career and life as usual. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to make a career-defining or hyper-dramatic change to your life in order to make an impact on the world.


* There are two nitpicky, yet actually quite important, caveats to this. The first one concerns the fact that there are probably too many non-profits in the market that tackle the same problem, meaning that it's more likely that a very large aggregate sum of donations is going to be spread far too thin. For instance, in 2006 there were over 700 charities in the USA that supported breast cancer research and prevention. Wouldn't it be more effective if (say) $1 billion in donations in America were divided over 100 breast cancer charities instead of over 700?
The second caveat is a bit more nerdy. The book "The End of Fundraising" discusses interesting concepts like social impact investing and the social capital market. Long story short, non-profits have to start tracking and demonstrating results (i.e. is the good-hearted work you guys are doing actually working and creating the impact it's supposed to?) instead of solely showing those heartwarming, yet ultimately meaningless videos on their websites about how Sally's life was transformed thanks to the work of an NGO. We're throwing money at problems without measuring what the heck is going on after the intervention. So if possible, and if you really want to change the world, donate to organizations that scientifically measure and demonstrate results and impact.
 
 

3. Pursue a career in the nonprofit world (maybe not super easy). I'm surprised that so few people think about this, although there probably is a plausible explanation for this. Generally, I think people don't look at work in the nonprofit world with particular excitement: "So I have to fly to [insert third world country] to work for the Red Cross in the slums of some remote village in that country to help in AIDS prevention programs?" People will consequently think that a career in the nonprofit world is also going to be dramatically underpaid, which makes it doubly unappealing. I sympathize with these views even though I think that they are far too simplistic.

Why would you work so hard on something if it’s not what you really want?
— Chase Reeves

There are nonprofits all over the world that tackle a huge range of issues; think of causes like homelessness, mental health, social justice for minorities, access to education for low-income students, job opportunities for low-income households in some of the biggest cities in America, and so much more. Clearly, you don't have to uproot your entire life just because you want to do something good in the world. A fantastic place to start is the 80,000 hours website, which is basically career-counseling for people who want a career with true social impact. What about the money then? Well, it's not as bad as you think. Sure, you won't be able to get six-figures but, as cliche as it sounds, doing something you care about is worth far more than a fat paycheck.

 

Why the dramatic headline?

Good question, and one that certainly warrants an answer beyond jokingly claiming that it was pure clickbait. In general, it boils down to an argument that I've grown desperately tired of hearing these days: "but I'm just one person*, what could I ever do to change the world?" I became so fed up with hearing that nonsense that I realized it was necessary to address the topic. Basically, I think this argument comes from an all-or-nothing perspective that we have about making an impact: we either win a Nobel Prize, have monuments named after us, and reach the status of a deity or... we're nothing. If we can't be the former, then we just throw our hands in the air and say "why bother?"

*The guys over at 80,000 hours wrote a nice piece about this titled "Can one person make a difference?" Yeah whatever it sounds cliche, just read it.

Why bother? Because if nobody frikkin' bothers, then these problems will never be solved! To illustrate this point more accurately, let's borrow the famous economic concept called 'the Prisoner's Dilemma' (this short video explains it nicely; the concept is inspired by Game Theory, which you might know about if you've seen the movie "A Beautiful Mind"). The PD is so on point because it brilliantly depicts how we so often do things that are not optimal for the group and society – like choosing not to volunteer, donate money to a good cause, or recycle – because we think that others won't do the same and/or that our contribution is insignificant. Well, to use the language of the Dilemma, guess what: if we all think like that and do nothing, we end up "betraying" society and "going to jail" for much longer than we really should have.

Why bother? Because we cannot rely on and hope for the dramatic contributions of a small number of people – the Elon Musks, Maya Angelous, Albert Einsteins – to fix all of society's problems; extraordinary minds like these simply don't come around every day. Instead, the only sustainable way forward is to rely on small contributions from a tremendous number of regular, everyday people like you and me to resolve the challenges we face.

Why bother? Because one person never has and never will solve all the problems of the world by him/herself, which is why every single one of us has to do his/her part to contribute.

 

Closing Words

The cynic will say that one of these methods is "better" or makes a more substantial difference than the other ones: "Donating $5 per month to a cause doesn't really make a difference; it's much better to pursue a career in the social sector!" I have as little regard or respect for this person as Mugen had in this wonderful scene in 'Samurai Champloo' (you'll know who he is after watching a few seconds of this). In all seriousness though, this is not about me doing "better" or "more" than you in making a difference in society. This is about getting every person to do his/her part, no matter how little it is, in fixing a world that evidently needs fixing.

The fact of the matter is that the most misguided belief in the world is not thinking that global warming is a (Chinese?) hoax...

It's not thinking that mental health is an insignificant societal issue...

Heck, it's not even thinking that all homeless people are a bunch of lazy drug addicts that can't stay sober...

It's thinking that you can't do a damn thing to fix any of these things.

See you, Space Cowboy.